Reflections on 20 Hours Doing ‘Nothing’

April 4th, 2024

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

Blaise Pascal, Philosopher and Mathematician

I came across this quote many years ago. It’s stuck because, for me, it highlights the potential ‘dark side’ of action. Whilst I consider it valid, it’s also challenging for someone like me who considers that ‘what we do is who we are’. I hasten to add though that why we do something, who we do it with/for, how we do it and where and when we do it are also crucial.

Having discussed this quote with others, an assumption often emerges, namely that if we sit quietly in a room alone, we’re effectively doing nothing. If you subscribe to the premise of ‘what we do is who we are’, the arresting conclusion is that if we do nothing, we are nothing.

I was keen to explore this further, but rather than sit alone in a room, I sat (and lay in a hammock) in woodland for 20 hours. During this time, I stayed within the same 15 square metres of woodland. I heard and saw no one else. I had no watch, no phone and no reading materials. I chose not to write or draw anything. I simply sat/lay and experienced day turn to night and then night turn to day. In the days leading up to it, I was apprehensive. I was worried I’d get really bored, to the point that it would be unpleasant.

Did I get bored? No.

Was it unpleasant? No. In fact, I would have been content to have stayed longer.

Did I do nothing? No. At times, I was taking care of basic needs such as eating and sleeping. At other times, I was intentional and meditated. For the most part though I simply absorbed what my senses perceived:

The smells of the forest and how they varied over the course of 20 hours.

The sensation of flies around my face (a free test of self-regulation if ever there was one).

The sound of bird song, deer movement and foxes communicating (very unexpectedly, very loudly and very early in the morning).

The differing shapes and colours of the trees.

Intermingled with this were a multitude of thoughts and feelings concerning people, places and things. Some were unsurprising, as they involved very current events in my life. However, many were far more obscure and left me wondering; ‘Why on earth did that pop into my mind?’

Was there enlightenment? Most certainly not! However, despite not sleeping very well, I felt energised and upbeat leaving the forest and for the remainder of the day.

Would I recommend it? / Would I do it again? Yes and Yes. If you do give it a go, I hope you find it insightful to explore what thoughts and feelings emerge when you allow yourself that amount of time in such an environment. Also, and without meaning to be clichéd, I hope you perceive it not as a case of getting away from it all, but instead getting back to it all.

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